OCEAN CITY — Concerned about the Fourth of July falling on Tuesday this year, Ocean City officials on Monday approved a further tiered flat fee schedule for parking at the Inlet on the holiday in the hopes of ensuring the lot stays full.
In 2013, the Mayor and Council approved a one-day only flat fee of $50 for parking all day at the Inlet lot on the Fourth of July. The intent was to allow visitors to park in the prime Inlet lot all day for an upfront fee of $50 and stay for the entire day straight through the Fourth of July fireworks and beyond.
In addition, the primary goal was to alleviate the massive traffic jams on the Inlet lot following the fireworks when hundreds of cars would stack up trying to pay as they exited the lot, sometimes for several hours. The $50 flat fee for all-day parking at the Inlet lot was successful in the first year and the following year, the fee schedule was modified to $50 if entering the lot before 3 p.m. and $30 after 3 p.m.
On Monday, Public Works Director Hal Adkins recommended a new fee schedule at the Inlet lot for the Fourth of July when the holiday falls on a Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday. Adkins and his staff recommended continuing the $50 fee at the start of the day from 6 a.m. to noon, $30 if entering from noon to 3 p.m., $20 if entering from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. and just $10 after 6 p.m.
Adkins said the tiered fee schedule could help ensure the lot remains full during the prime evening hours leading up to and during the fireworks show. He said an unanticipated anomaly had some visitors paying the flat $50 fee earlier in the day on the Fourth of July and then leaving at some point during the day, resulting in empty spaces in the prime parking area on one of the busiest days of the year. He said the graduated rates throughout the day would encourage visitors to fill the lot throughout the day on the holiday especially when it fell midweek as it does this year.
“We created the flat fee of $50 all day in 2013 and the lot was filled to capacity by 11:20 a.m.,” he said. “What we did not foresee was people would pay the $50 and then leave at some point during the day, putting in motion a situation where we had open spots in the Inlet lot on the Fourth of July. With the Fourth falling on a Tuesday this year, we have concerns about filling the lot.”
Councilman Wayne Hartman supported the concept, but voiced concern the $10 fee after 6 p.m. would essentially be cheaper than the regular metered rate of $3 per hour on all other days. He suggested keeping the $50 and $30 fees in and times in place and leaving it at $20 after 3 p.m., dropping the $10 tier altogether.
However, Councilman Dennis Dare said he believed the current policy of $50 prior to 3 p.m. and $30 after 3 p.m. still represented a good value for prime parking on the Fourth of July holiday and recommended not changing it. It’s important to note the tiered fee schedule would only apply when the Fourth of July falls on a Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday, and the flat $50 all-day fee would remain in place when the holiday falls on a weekend.
“After 35 years of Fourth of Julys, I’ve never seen available parking downtown,” Dare said. “I think the resolution in place now for those times and those rates are fine. I think we’re overthinking this.”
Dare pointed out some residents with property downtown often charge considerably more than the town’s fees for parking on the holiday.
“A lot of our downtown residents sell their parking spots on the Fourth of July and some sell them for a lot more than this,” he said. “It stands to reason we would fill up first and they fill up later.”
Council Secretary Mary Knight agreed, pointing out the private property owners often sell their available space for parking to the highest bidder during special events including last weekend’s OC Air Show.
“I tend to agree with Councilman Dare,” she said. “During the Air Show, I saw people offering spots for $50, $75 and even $100. Keeping this at $30 I think is fine.”
Hartman pointed out those rates charged by private property owners were market driven and as available spaces filled up in the downtown area on the holidays and special events, the price continued to go up. He said it was a different story for a municipal parking lot and raised concerns about the public’s possible perception of potentially high parking rates.
“We’re a family resort,” he said. “We don’t want people to go to Ocean City and say they got gouged for parking. There is no reason to take advantage of anybody as long as we’re not hurting ourselves.”
Mayor Rick Meehan explained the original concept of the flat parking fees for the Inlet lot on the Fourth of July was to alleviate the congestion when almost everyone left at the same time following the fireworks.
“If you all remember, and sometimes we forget why we do certain things, this was all developed really as a strategy to get the lot to exit properly and not hold people on the lot as they tried to pay while leaving,” he said. “The idea was to come up with a reasonable number that would cover the whole day.”
Meehan agreed with Adkins an unforeseen circumstance was people paying the $50 flat fee early in the day and then leaving at some point, resulting in open spots on the prime parking lot.
“We originally thought people would come in during the day, pay the $50 and stay until midnight,” he said. “We really thought they would be there the whole day. The key was they wouldn’t have to stop when they left to pay and get stacked up in there for a couple of hours. We were surprised that people did leave. They didn’t stay the whole day and some left in the middle of the afternoon.”
Meehan reiterated the flat fee was conceived to alleviate congestion for traffic leaving the lot at the end of the day and not to rake in revenue for the town.
“The real purpose was to develop a system that would help the traffic flow in and out of the lot, would compensate the town and increase our revenue, but still be fair to the general public,” he said. “We are a public parking lot, not a private parking lot and charging an exorbitant fee is not our purpose.”
Meehan said the proposed fee schedule altered to include a $20 rate after 3 p.m. and eliminating the proposed $10 rate after 6 p.m. could achieve all of the town’s goals.
“I think what is being recommended here gives them some flexibility as to making sure the lot is full and that people aren’t driving around downtown because they think the lot is too expensive,” he said. “We have businesses along there that want to see that lot full. I think the way this is set up will accomplish all of that.”
City Solicitor Guy Ayres said the proposed changes could be altered in the resolution as presented on Monday, but would need to be rewritten if the plan was to implement the new fees in out years. He suggested approving the proposed changes for this year only.
“We could make this just for this Fourth of July,” he said. “Then we can come back and revisit the day of the week issue.”
A motion was made to approve the tiered Inlet lot fee schedule at $50 from 6 a.m. to noon, $30 from noon to 3 p.m. and $20 after 3 p.m., thereby eliminating the proposed $10 tier after 6 p.m. The policy would be put in place for this Fourth of July, which falls on a Tuesday, and then revisit the issue for future years when the holiday falls on a Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday. The council approved the resolution with a 5-1 vote with Dare opposed and Councilman John Gehrig absent.